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Urban Sprawl Costs Us All
“Urban sprawl” is new construction on open land that spreads out from a city centre.
Building auto-centred suburbs on farmland comes at a high cost. There are wellness costs — environmental harm, obesity, and food insecurity. Then there are financial costs — Inner-city taxpayers subsidize outlying infrastructure and services. City Council tells us that 17 developing neighbourhoods will cost $4 billion more than they will raise in taxes. Yet there are 40 new suburbs on the go.
What will stop sprawl?
Council learned how to stop sprawl from “Be Ready Or Be Left Behind – The Report of the Advisory Panel on Metro Edmonton’s Future, May 31, 2016.” The Report laid out a roadmap to stop sprawl immediately or be uncompetitive, bloated, and expensive.
Stopping sprawl is a three-step process:
(1) develop plans (regional, citywide, and neighbourhood-level),
(2) implement financial incentives, and
(3) impose financial disincentives.
Plans are a topic unto themselves. Please see “Planning” on this website. But planning to stop sprawl looks like this:
- Stop approving suburbs. Draw a growth boundary and stop growing.
- Densify approved suburbs. Meaningfully.
- Build on vacant city lots first. This is superior to building on suburban land or knocking down a useable home to densify a lot.
Financial Incentives and Disincentives
- Swap land. Trade suburban land for vacant city lots. There is ample opportunity for land swaps. The City of Edmonton owns enough vacant lots to meet growth targets (40,000 homes) and not build another house in the suburbs. Blatchford, The Quarters, Fort Road, and about 50 vacant lots scattered through mature neighbourhoods add up to about 50,000 homes.
- Increase taxes on vacant city lots. At last count Edmonton has 492 vacant city lots, of which 10% are city-owned.
- Reduce building fees for vacant city lots. Hamilton charges 90% less to build in the city than in the suburbs.
- Offer grants for building on vacant city lots. Edmonton appears to offer only one grant, a reimbursement grant of between $7000 and $12,000 per unit for dwellings in mixed-use commercial-residential buildings in Business Improvement Areas (main street commercial areas).
- Increase building fees for suburbs. Kitchener charges 74% more to build in suburbs than in the city.
- Raise infrastructure levies for suburbs. Failing to charge appropriate offsite levies subsidizes automobile infrastructure and makes auto-centric sprawl attractive.
- Densify existing suburbs. A residential density grant can cover substantial construction costs. But density must be meaningful. High density is 105 to 500 units per hectare. Medium density is 80-105 units per hectare. Edmonton’s suburbs are planned at 30-45 unit per hectares — low densities, the same as the least-dense mature neighbourhoods Council is intent on densifying. And City Council has approved suburbs that barely exceed the lower limit: Horse Hill (controversial; on rich agricultural soil) – 31. Riverview – 31.7. The Uplands and Aster – 33. Hawk’s Ridge, River’s Edge, Stillwater: 34. Paisley – 35.
Marquis comes in as most dense at 38. But this doesn’t mean that the land use is compact. A neighbourhood can have a tower on the edge that increases the number of dwellings on paper but allows for extra-low-density sprawl in reality. Simply mixing houses with condos and apartments does not end sprawl. And developers are not prevented from building the low-density housing in a new neighbourhood, then moving on to the next neighbourhood.
Indeed, in Marquis, 76% of the land mass is low-density residential (single and semi-detached housing). There is some row housing along a road (10% of the land mass), medium density low-rises (11%), a high rise (1.5%) and some mixed-use (1.5%). But the vast majority of Marquis — the most dense suburb approved so far — is plain old urban sprawl.
Responsible development demands local governments that commit to a publicly-supported, evidence-based suite of programs, including
(1) plans (regional, citywide, and neighbourhood-level),
(2) financial incentives, and
(3) financial disincentives, to direct investment where it is needed.